Talks on Fuel Bank Stalled at IAEA

Article excerpt

Plans to establish an international nuclear fuel bank, a key part of nonproliferation programs put forward by several world leaders, have failed to receive the support they need to start being put in place.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors ended its September meeting with little progress since June, the last time the board met. Earlier this year, advocates of the proposed fuel bank had talked about a timetable under which the board in June would have directed the IAEA Secretariat to flesh out a proposal for the September meeting and the board could have then endorsed it.

But at the June meeting, some of the board's 35 members balked at the plans. The board essentially decided to continue discussing the plan at a conceptual level. The talks have not made much headway since then, sources at the September meeting said.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, President Barack Obama, and others have strongly backed the fuel bank concept.

The aim of the fuel bank proposals is to dissuade countries from pursuing their own uranium-enrichment programs by providing them with an assured supply of fuel at market prices. The bank would serve as backup to existing commercial mechanisms for countries with good nonproliferation credentials.

In February 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a version of this approach in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. (See ACT, March 2004.) But Bush's version required countries to "renounce" enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing and was combined with a call for a ban on enrichment- and reprocessing-related exports to states that do not already operate fuel cycle facilities. That approach led to complaints from many potential recipients, and U.S. officials eventually turned away from such language.

All proposals so far, however, have come from current or potential supplier states, while potential recipients have been largely indifferent or critical. (See ACT, January/February 2009.)

The first proposal before the June board was aimed at establishing an IAEA-owned reserve of low-enriched uranium. In 2006 the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private U.S. organization, had pledged $50 million for such a reserve on the condition that IAEA member states would donate another $100 million. By the June meeting, the IAEA had received pledges from the United States ($49.5 million), the European Union (up to euro25 million), Kuwait ($10 million), the United Arab Emirates ($10 million), and Norway ($5 million), enabling it to implement the proposal. Kazakhstan had offered to host the fuel bank.

Deadline Extension Possible

The NTI originally had set a September 2008 deadline for the IAEA to receive the required pledges and put the program in place. The NTI later agreed to a one-year extension. In a Sept. 29 interview, Charles Curtis, NTI president and chief operating officer, said he had received a request from ElBaradei for another one-year extension. The request is "under review," he said, adding that he expects a decision "in very short order."

The board also had before it a proposal from Russia to host and provide the funding for a similar reserve. The Russian proposal and the one responding to the NTI offer are considered the most mature. Other fuel assurance concepts are in various stages of development.

In presenting the proposals to the board in June, ElBaradei stressed that countries would not be giving up any rights, including the right to develop an indigenous fuel cycle, by endorsing a fuel bank or by receiving nuclear fuel from it. Both proposals also emphasized that point.

However, both proposals ran into heavy opposition from several members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Many of the criticisms aired at the board meeting centered on countries' concerns that they would have to "surrender" fuel cycle rights, a source familiar with the discussions said in a July interview. …